October 2013 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“Use of Weapons” Iain M. Banks. Science fiction, set in his Culture universe – Zakalwe is the one operative capable of doing the job that Special Circumstances need doing, so he’s brought out of retirement but his past is catching up with him. Part of Read All the Fiction, kept.

“Look to Windward” Iain M. Banks. Science fiction, set in his Culture universe. Part of Read All the Fiction, kept.

“All Our Yesterdays” Cristin Terrill. Young adult time travel novel, rather good. Library book.

Total: 3


“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total: 1



Turin Street At Night.

Weather Beaten.

Total: 3


Exoplanets. In Our Time episode about planets in other solar systems to our own.

The Mamluks. In Our Time episode about the Mamluks, who were a slave army who ruled Egypt between the 13th & 16th Centuries AD.

Total: 2


EEG Trip to the EES. A group of us from the EEG visited the London office of the EES to see their archives.

“Freemasonry and Ancient Egypt” Cathie Bryan. Talk at the EEG meeting in October, about the influences of (perceived) Egyptian culture on Freemasonry.

Total: 2



Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth. Michael Scott looks at the development of drama in Ancient Greece.

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates. David Attenborough shows us how the vertebrates evolved from little worms to the diversity of today.

A Hundred Years of Us. Aired to coincide with the 2011 census this is a look at how British culture has changed over the last hundred years.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire. John Sergeant travels across India on the railway, looking at the history of India, the British Empire and the railways.

Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets. A combination of a history & survey of British sweets with some autobiographical reminiscences from Nigel Slater.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors. Series about the history of the Ottoman Empire presented by Rageh Omaar.

Shakespeare in Italy. Francesco da Mosto talking about Shakespeare’s plays that’re set in Italy.

The Story of the Jews. Series presented by Simon Schama about the history of the Jews.

Stories of the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisted. Julian Richards returns to digs that were originally filmed for Meet the Ancestors more than a decade ago & sees what new things have been learnt.

The Wonder of Dogs. Kate Humble, Steve Leonard & Ruth Goodman talk about the history & biology of dogs.

Total: 10


King’s College, Cambridge – we visited for the first time in September 2013.

Total: 1

“Look to Windward” Iain M. Banks

I took two Iain M. Banks books away on holiday, this was the other one. Look to Windward is also set in his Culture universe, this time centring on some visitors to a Culture Orbital. An Orbital is a massive artificial habitat orbiting a star inhabited by tens of billions of people (human, alien, AI), all run by a single AI. As the story opens the Orbital is gearing up for ceremonies to mark the appearance of light from two supernovas that are 800 light years away. They weren’t natural, they were caused by a weapon wielded during a war that the Culture was involved in – and the AI that runs the Orbital, called Hub, was a warship during that war. While the weapon wasn’t used by the Culture they feel responsible & guilty for their involvement in a war that lead to such terrible acts & terrible loss of life. Hence the marking of the light reaching the Orbital. One of the non-Culture protagonists is Ziller, a composer in self-imposed exile from Chel, who is composing a new piece for the occasion. Quillan, another Chelgrian has recently arrived on the Orbital, ostensibly with the mission of meeting with Ziller & persuading him to return home. But all is not what it seems here & we find out (along with Quilan) via flashback spaced out through the story. Quilan is also a veteran of war – a war caused by the Culture’s meddling in his civilisation’s politics, for which they now feel terribly guilty.

It’s been ages since I’ve read these books, and in my memory the Culture was always very much The Good Guys. But it actually seems more ambiguous than that. I mean, it’d be pretty cool to live in the Culture – it’s a true utopia, and post-scarcity one too. A Culture citizen seems pretty much to be able to do what they want to do and live how they want to live. However the overall civilisation is definitely prone to hubris when it comes to dealing with other civilisations. They (or at least Special Circumstances) meddle, and meddle “knowing” that they Know Best. And when it goes wrong, they’re oh so terribly sorry but they don’t seem to learn from it – 800 years on from a war that culminated in two supernovae they’re still meddling in others’ politics before they know enough to do so.

Culture AI are also definitely not bounded by human feelings about unnecessary brutality when they are “off the leash” and undertaking reprisals. Both the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw in Use of Weapons (post) and the unnamed weapon who appears in two vignettes in this book seem glad of the opportunity to cause suffering when they’ve got an excuse. Both scenes are unsettling because of the gleefulness of the AIs in question.

I had a couple of quibbles with the structure/pacing of the story. It’s obvious from the beginning that both Quilan and Hub are veterans of war, but the other parallels between them don’t appear till late on in the book just before you need to know about them for the ending to make sense. It would’ve been nice to have that seeded in the story earlier, but maybe I just missed some clues. There was also a sub-plot with an off-world Culture citizen who discovers the true plan for Quilan and is trying to get back to warn them. And it just didn’t really seem to go anywhere in the end. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was neat – particularly as this Culture citizen was studying another alien ecosystem where the aliens were truly alien rather than just differently shaped. But I’m not sure what it brought to the overall story.

It did tie in thematically by the end, though – memory & identity were a part of the ending of that thread as they were for the other threads. So far all three Banks books I’ve read have had something about identity, and concealment of parts of oneself – either internally or externally imposed. I’ll be looking out for it in the next ones.

In Our Time: Exoplanets

The first planet orbiting a star other than the Sun wasn’t discovered until 1992 and since then the subject of exoplanets has gone from being something you argue about the existence of to a rapidly expanding field with new discoveries all the time. The experts who discussed exoplanets on In Our Time were Carolin Crawford (University of Cambridge), Don Pollacco (University of Warwick) and Suzanne Aigrain (University of Oxford).

One of the reasons it took so long to discover any extra-solar planets, despite people speculating about their existence for centuries, is that they are very hard to directly see. In fact I think they were saying that none of the known ones have actually been seen. Instead a variety of more indirect techniques are used to detect them, and these required both sophisticated technology & sophisticated knowledge of physics before they could be used. The technology needed to develop to a point where small differences in stars could be measured accurately and consistently over time. And the physics is required to both predict how a star without planets would behave and then to figure out what the differences from this prediction mean.

In the programme they ran through a variety of techniques used to detect planets. One of these is to look at the colour of the star’s light and see if it’s changing between blue-shifted & red-shifted over time. If the star has no planets then you won’t detect that. When there’s a planet orbiting the star it’s not quite as straightforward as the planet circling the star, actually the star and the planet are both circling a point between them (that’s a lot lot closer to the centre of the star than it is to the planet). So the star will seem to move back & forth relative to us observing it. This is biased towards detecting more massive planets, as they’ll move the centre of gravity from the centre of the star more – so-called “hot jupiters” for instance, which are planets the mass of Jupiter that orbit close to their star.

Another method is to look for the changes in the star’s light caused by the transiting of a planet across the face of the star. Obviously this is only possible to detect if the planet is orbiting in the right plane for us to see it. But if you have one transiting where we can detect it then you can detect the existence of other planets in that system by looking at the perturbations of the orbit of the one that transits. You can also detect things about a planet’s atmosphere with this method. The changes in the light of the star can be used to tell you something about the size of the planet (in terms of diameter), and if you look at different wavelengths of light then you’ll see varying diameters. This tells you when the atmosphere of the planet is thin enough to be transparent to that wavelength, and different gases absorb different wavelengths differently so you can figure out the gases that are present. Apparently you can even detect the presence of clouds using this technique.

Another method uses the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. If the light from a distant star passes by a closer to us star on it’s way to the telescope then it will be bent by the gravity of the middle star. A planet orbiting that middle star will affect the lensing effect, and you can figure out things about the size & distance from the star by exactly how the lensing is affected.

If you use the first two methods together you can tell things about the density of the planet. Is it small & heavy? Is it big & fluffy? Or even small & fluffy? There seem to be a wide variety of planet types out there, not all of which are represented in our own solar system. There are also a wide variety of types of solar system out there – Pollaco pointed out that one reason there was argument about the reality of the first exoplanet discovered was because people were assuming that our own solar system was a good model for “all systems everywhere”. It turns out it’s not. The example they used in the programme was systems that have hot jupiters – the first exoplanet was one of these, and the very idea of a Jupiter type planet orbiting with a periodicity of only 4 days was almost unthinkable. They also talked about planetary systems detected around brown dwarves – stars which weren’t quite massive enough to ignite at the end of the formation process. And planets around pulsars (again like the first ones detected) – and one of the experts (I think it was Crawford?) made a throwaway remark about how these are probably not the first planetary system for the star in question. Before a star becomes a pulsar it goes through a supernova explosion, which would probably destroy any original planets – the ones orbiting afterwards are probably secondary captures.

They also discussed looking for planets which might be habitable. Bragg asked if we are thinking about life like ourselves, or germs. The answer was (paraphrasing) “yes”. At the moment no-one knows enough to know what we’re looking for in terms of life on other planets, and at first we’re obviously limited to things we know about life on Earth as a starting point for what to look for. So looking for rocky planets which are neither too big nor too small, that are in the right zone for liquid water. And other things about our own solar system might’ve been necessary – like the presence of Jupiter which draws away some of the comets that could bombarded Earth & wipe out all life. I think it was Aigrain who talked about other ways of detecting life – looking at what we can tell about the atmospheres of the planets. If there are very reactive gases present then they must be being made constantly – some of these we only know of biological processes that make them. So if one could detect such gases that’d be a sign of life.

It was a little bit of an odd In Our Time episode, because there was less of a sense of a narrative than they normally have. It felt like this is because the study of exoplanets is in its infancy – we’re at a point where most of the work is data gathering. I mean in the sense that a lot of planets are being discovered and categorised, but as yet they’re not classified and grouped into types. Nor are there overall theories about how solar systems in general work or were formed – it’s now clear that the one we know isn’t the only sort there can be, nor is it particularly typical of what we’re detecting now.

“Use of Weapons” Iain M. Banks

I’m reading through the Iain M. Banks in “the order they are on the shelf” which I have a suspicion might be random. Most (all?) of the half a dozen or so that we own are standalone I believe, so this should work out OK. I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of them before but sufficiently long ago that I can’t remember what happens.

Use of Weapons is set in Banks’s Culture universe – a far future human & AI interstellar, well, culture who are very much post-scarcity. They are one of the more technologically advanced civilisations in their era & part of the universe, and they benevolently interfere in the affairs of other civilisations to make sure things go the way they feel they should. To do this they often hire members of other civilisations to do the dirty work, and Zakalwe was one of these operatives. He’s retired, mostly, but Special Circumstances (the interfering branch of the Culture) think he’s the only man for this particular job and Diziet Sma (a human Culture citizen) and Skaffen-Amtiskaw (a drone, an AI Culture citizen) are dispatched to persuade him to join them.

The story is told in a very non-linear fashion, and it’s not always entirely clear where the episode you’re reading fits into the narrative but it doesn’t feel confusing. Towards the end it begins to coalesce into a coherent whole, but it’s not until the last (pre-epilogue) scene that you get the final piece of information that makes it snap completely into focus. And not the focus you might’ve expected.

In some ways it reminded me of The Wasp Factory (post). Not in terms of gruesomeness, Use of Weapons wasn’t short of gruesome but it wasn’t as much front and centre as it was in The Wasp Factory. But it reminded me of it because of the way the very end of the book changes how all before it looked, yet you’re left feeling like the clues were there and you just didn’t see them. It did feel a bit like Banks cheated tho – there’s a couple of sections where the reader is misled as to whose point of view we’re seeing it from in a way that isn’t possible to figure out till after the fact. Despite that the conclusion feels satisfying.

I’m sure I missed a lot of the stuff that’s going on underneath the surface of the story, it felt like there was a lot of complexity there if you paid attention to it. Stuff to think about about identity, and atonement. But I’m not sure I’ve got my thoughts sufficiently sorted out to articulate any of them. Particularly not in a non-spoilery fashion, and it’s a book it would be a shame to spoil – worth a first read through not knowing where it ends up I think.

This will stay out on the shelves, I enjoyed reading it and it’s definitely worth a re-read (hopefully before I’ve forgotten what it was about again!).

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 3)

After the turbulence of the bulk of Henry III’s reign up to the death of Simon de Montfort & the conclusion of the civil war in 1266, the next 30 years were a period of both stability & recovery. The transition between the reigns of Henry III and Edward I was smooth, even tho Edward wasn’t in the country when his father died. And even tho the royal side had won the war, many of the reforms that de Montfort and his associates had been calling for were instituted.

Orientation Dates:

  • The Mamluks took power in Cairo in 1250 ruling for the next 3 centuries (post)
  • Kublai Khan ruled the Mongol Empire (in practice mostly Mongolia & China) 1260-1294 (post)
  • Edward I on Crusade 1270-1274
  • Marco Polo (if he existed) travelled from Venice to China 1271-1295
  • Henry III dies 1272
  • Edward II born 1284

Reconstruction and Reform, 1266-1294

The start of this period was a bit shaky – initially the Crown was keen to press its advantage from having won the war – but things quickly settled down. Early legislation (in 1267) actually incorporated a lot of the reforms of 1259 (which weren’t originally proposed by the Crown). Once the situation was calmer Henry III’s big project was the translation of Edward the Confessor’s remains into the new church he was building at Westminster – this was achieved with much ceremony in 1269. Edward I wasn’t really involved with domestic politics at this time – his project was his crusade, and there were a series of parliaments called by Henry III between 1268 & 1270 to negotiate for taxes to pay for this. Prestwich doesn’t discuss Edward’s crusade (this is a history of England after all), just mentions that Edward was out of the country for four years between 1270 & 1274. The regime clearly put thought into ensuring an orderly transition of power in case Henry III died during this time (as indeed he did). Several castles were transferred into the hands of men loyal to Edward before he left the country, and his chancellor (Robert Burnell) was left behind to look after Edward’s lands. After Henry’s death it seems that these key figures held the country together and governed in Edward’s name. Burnell was to be chancellor from then until he died in 1292.

Edward’s regime was a reforming one. His goals weren’t entirely the same as de Monfort & his associates in the 1250s, he was also aiming to recover & maintain royal rights. And to run his estates & his country efficiently and cost-effectively. It was a regime that ran on information – many inquiries were held over the next 25 years, and the results fed into legislation designed to address grievances discovered etc. At the time the traditional source of income for the King was the land that he held – and reforms were attempted to the management of these estates. These failed, and taxation became a more important part of the funding of the Crown. Rather than direct taxes, which needed to be negotiated, customs duties became an important source of income. And an important way to pay back the Italian bankers that Edward’s regime borrowed money from – rather than pay them in actual money instead they were granted the customs duties on particular commodities, which gave them a stake in the wider English economy. Also on the subject of finance – the currency was in a poor state & was recoined using a new technique (measured silver droplets rather than punched out of a flat sheet) starting from 1279, with the old coins forbidden.

This increasing important of taxation meant that Parliament continued to be important, even tho it had been used to their advantage by the barons in the civil war. A key development of Edward’s reign was that petitions could be presented to the King at a parliament – a formal route for people to complain about royal officials, and to raise grievances. Who was summoned to each parliament wasn’t yet formalised, let alone being a hereditary right, with not even every Baron at every parliament.

Another source of funding for Edward’s regime, and a way to gain political credit with the Barons, were the Jews. First legislation was passed that aimed to stop them lending money at interest (and conveniently meant that debts already owed no longer earnt interest), and they were “encouraged” to move into other trades. They were also increasingly restricted in where they could live, had to wear a distinctive badge & had the status of the king’s serfs. Later in 1290 they were expelled from the country entirely. Prestwich takes pains to point out that there’s no evidence that Edward was himself anti-Semitic (beyond the background level common to European society at the time) – in contrast to his mother, and to Simon de Montfort, both of whom have left evidence of anti-Semitic feelings. But the Jews had been taxed into the ground already, and the political capital to be gained by expelling them was worth a lot more to Edward than the Jews themselves were. In particular Prestwich thinks that the expulsion itself may’ve been the unwritten quid pro quo for a particularly generous grant of taxation by Parliament in that year. I don’t imagine it made any difference to the Jews that Edward was just being pragmatic.

Edward’s Queens were covered in about a paragraph in this chapter (which is, after all, about the politics rather than the personal) – his first wife, Eleanor of Castille, died in 1290 and he subsequently married Margaret of France. Edward’s mother also died in 1291, as did a couple of Edward’s senior courtiers (including the man who’d been his chancellor since 1272). The period of stability & political peace was drawing to an end. Prestwich notes that Edward had had an easier job than Henry III in terms of patronage – Henry III had all those half-brothers & in-laws he needed to keep sweet, Edward had only a few in-laws and close associates to provide for. But he also managed to do so in ways that prevented general dissatisfaction.

Tangents to follow up on: The life of Eleanor of Castille, also of Edward I himself.

TV Including Greeks, Indian Railways, Sweets, Ottomans, Neolithic Britons and 20th Century Britons

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The last part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama looked at what happened after Greece was conquered by Rome. It felt a little less focussed than the previous two episodes, possibly because the Romans aren’t as much his thing as the Greeks? The theme was that Rome both preserved this art form (and Greek plays, too) and also changed it along the way. Early Roman culture frequently mimicked Greek culture. Scott positioned this as them seeing the Greeks as “this is how a civilised culture acts” and so imitating it to make sure everyone knew they were civilised too. Then later there’s more of an element of “we can do it bigger & better” – the temples & monuments still have that classical style but they’re much more over the top. So drama got a foothold in Roman culture as it conquered the Greek city states in Italy, and gradually became a common sort of entertainment. In Greece drama had been closely connected to the political process & the people who produced it (playwrights, actors etc) had high status. In Rome drama was only entertainment, and while playwrights might still command respect actors were much lower status. And woe betide the playwright who took too obvious a dig at the powers that be, much better to stick to safe subjects.

An interesting series about something I didn’t know that much about 🙂

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

In the second & final part of John Sergeant’s trip on the Indian railway he travelled from north to south. Along the way he talked about the construction of the railways. I hadn’t realised everything was shipped across to India from Britain, because there wasn’t the industrial capability in India to build it. This includes not just the tracks and so on, but the actual trains themselves. He also visited a Maharajah’s palace – once upon a time the train ran direct to the door, as part of the British Empire keeping the Indian Princes onside.

The railways revolutionised Indian transport – prior to the British building them transport for most people was by foot or by animal. The increased mobility both connects people to the wider country, and allows for a lot more trade. Obviously the British benefited from that first, but modern Indian businessmen still use the same railways for their goods transport. The railways also generated a lot of jobs (and many of those jobs went to people who would otherwise have been shunned – Anglo-Indians for instance who weren’t welcomed in either English or Indian societies). And this is still true today. Sergeant visited a laundry facility (where it seemed it was all done by hand) and a leather workshop (again, handmade bags for all the railway employees/business).

So the railways have brought much good to India, but it was at a high price. Sergeant visited Bhore Ghat just south of Mumbai where the engineering difficulties of building a railway through a mountain range in a hot country with Victorian technology lead to a lot of deaths. Europeans tended to die of fevers, the engineer who was supposed to be running the project died not long after he arrived in India but his wife took over the project management and it was still completed on time & under budget. The Indians tended to die from industrial accidents and many more of them died.

Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets

This programme was a combination of a history & survey of British sweets, and personal reminiscences by Nigel Slater. I think I would’ve preferred more history/survey & less autobiography – particularly as I only have the vaguest idea who Nigel Slater is. But it did fit the primary theme of the programme, that sweets can be very good memory triggers. And as the programme went on I definitely had my own trips down memory lane – sweets I remembered, adverts I remembered, memories associated with particular sweets (in particular I hadn’t thought about peppermint creams at xmas for years, I don’t remember when Dad last made them either. Marzipan fruits too!). The bits & pieces of history were also interesting – I don’t think I ever knew that cocoa (the drink) was being pushed by the Quakers as an alternative to alcohol in a part of the Temperance Movement in the Victorian era. Which “explains” the Quaker origins of the chocolate companies. I also didn’t know that UFOs and aniseed balls both derive from medicine packaging of a bygone era.

Fun, but I’m not sure how much appeal it would have if you aren’t of the right age & country to remember the sweets.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

This is a recent series covering the history of the Ottoman empire, with an emphasis on how this history affects the current politics & unrest in the Middle East today. In the first episode Rageh Omaar covers the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire, the first two hundred years or so. A lot new here for me, I don’t really know much about the history of the Ottomans. They start as a nomadic tribe of horseback warriors, who fight as mercenaries as part of how they survive. From settling down in 1300-ish near the Turkish town of Sogut they start to conquer the lands around them, and construct a settled Ottoman state. At first this included a lot of the land around Constantinople but not the city itself, but in 1453 Mehmed II’s army succeeded (with the help of their superior military tech – cannons) to capture the city and turn it into Istanbul (here, have a free They Might Be Giants earworm. You’re welcome)*. This was a hugely symbolic moment – it was seen as the victory of Islam over Christianity. This was also the point where the Ottoman state began to turn into the Ottoman Empire. So far the Ottomans had been fighting Christians, and fighting other Muslim states was not the done thing – this changed when tensions increased between the Ottomans & the Safavid Empire. As the Safavids were Shiite and the Ottomans were Sunni the “obvious” solution was to declare the Shiites heretics, and then they were fine to go to war with – which is still having repercussions today.

*Omaar gave the impression the Ottomans changed the name of the city, but while I was looking for that vid I ran across a few mentions that it might’ve been the Turks after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t know which is right, but I still got that earworm during the programme 🙂

Omaar also talked a bit about life in the Empire in this period – the Sultan with his harem of concubines, fratricide between rival sons of the Sultan, Christians as tolerated but second class citizens. In his eagerness to emphasise that life in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t as bad as later history might suggest (i.e. the folk history of the peoples in Greece & Bulgaria etc who were conquered by the Ottomans) I think Omaar went a bit too far towards apologising for them. In particular the “it wasn’t that bad” of children being taken from (Christian) conquered families as slaves – army for the boys, concubines for the girls) – was a bit tenuous: they wouldn’t take your last son! it was quite a good life! Or the comparison of the fratricide to the succession wars in Europe in the same time period (Wars of the Roses, Hundred Years War) – doing your killing by policy rather than sometimes having wars isn’t quite a good v. bad distinction to me 😉 How about two shades of grey?

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The second episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was desperately padded, with not much new stuff – if I’d seen the older series I think I’d’ve been rather disappointed. The two excavations were both of neolithic burials – one in Dorset & one in Orkney. The Dorset one is near a great earthwork called the Dorset Caucus – function unknown, and probably unknowable. One reason this burial is notable (apart from just because neolithic burials are only rarely found) is that in the original work they used isotope analysis of the teeth of the four skeletons to show that two had grown up in one area and two in the area where they were buried – the woman and the youngest child weren’t local, the two older children were. This was apparently the first proof of concept for using this sort of analysis on teeth, and all the problems that the PhD student (at the time) had had getting people to let her do analysis on their skeletons suddenly vanished once she’d been on telly. I suspect the way it was presented in the programme is likely to’ve been simplified to make a nice story 😉 One new thing for that burial was that in the last 15 years someone has done analysis of snail shell fragments in soil samples across the area, these have changed the perception of the landscape the people lived in – not dense forest across the whole region, but changing from wooded to cleared at the Dorset Caucus. The other new thing is that by correlating radiocarbon dates with archaeological evidence they’ve figured out there’s a 45% chance that the woman was alive when the earthwork was being constructed. A datapoint I was a trifle underwhelmed with (as I was also underwhelmed with the DNA evidence shown earlier about relationships between the woman & children) – the narrative of the show presented this as far more conclusive than it actually sounded like.

The Orkney burial had been in a pretty poor condition when discovered – fragile rotted bones & lots of missing bits. Originally assumed to’ve been as a result of a burial rite that involved letting the bones be picked clean by animals before interring them. But they’re now pretty sure this can’t’ve been the case – the missing bits include the bigger bones, not just the small ones. Some other bones from the area (and time period?) have had holes drilled in them after they’d been interred for a while, so clearly this culture had a different attitude to dead people than we do. No “rest in peace” here. And that was pretty much it for this half, only it was dragged out to about half an hour somehow. Oh, there was also something about a new tomb discovery only the excavations there aren’t very advanced yet.

A Hundred Years of Us

The second episode of this series was a mix of the fascinating and the banal. Banal included Phil Tufnell being a cheery chappy and finding out that Working On A Farm Is Hard (with c.1911 techniques) – not exactly news. But the segment on tuberculosis, and the start of the NHS, was fascinating – they had interviews with a woman who’d been a nurse in a sanatorium in 1948 and with a surviving patient from that sanatorium. The patient had been about 15 years old in 1948 and was one of the first people to be given streptomycin after the NHS started – if it had been left much longer she’d’ve died, and 12 weeks after treatment she was well enough to leave the sanatorium and go back home. If the NHS hadn’t been formed there’s no way she or her family could’ve afforded treatment, that’s why she was in the sanatorium waiting to die in the first place.

Other topics for the episode ranged from holidays (and the rise & fall of the Butlins style holiday camp), hats, to the end of rationing after WWII. There was some peculiar editing of the sat-on-the-sofa-chatting segments that meant people got obviously cut off and it didn’t look very smooth.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! 😉

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man 😉 Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.

In Our Time: The Mamluks

The Mamluks were a slave army that went on to rule Egypt (and Egypt’s empire) for around 300 years between the mid 13th Century & the early 16th Century AD. Although we call it a dynasty the position of sultan was generally not hereditary during this period, and before one could be a sultan one needed to have been a slave. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Robert Irwin (SOAS, University of London) and Doris Behrens-Abouseif (SOAS, University of London).

The Mamluk army was founded under the Ayyubid Dynasty, and soldiers were “recruited” i.e. bought as boys from Kipchak Turks who lived on the steppes, or from Circassians from the Caucasus. These peoples fought as a horse archers, and this was the skill they were purchased for. Once enslaved they were brought to Egypt where they were given a good education, and they were instructed in & converted to Islam. Bennison was keen to stress that this slavery was different to the US model that we are more familiar with – the Mamluks had high status, even as slaves, and in later times in particular were often freed once their education was finished.

When the last of the Ayyubid Sultans died, and his heir shortly after, his widow ruled in her own name for a while. She allied herself with the Mamluks, and subsequently married one of the Mamluk generals who became Sultan in her place. The experts were saying that the Mamluks used this to legitimise their rule – a sense of continuity with the old dynasty. They also did this by reinstating the Caliphate – the last Caliph had died in Baghdad when the Mongols sacked the city & when a relative of his turned up the Mamluk Sultans installed him as Caliph in Egypt. He was a figurehead, but one that meant they were seen as the legitimate Islamic rulers of Egypt & the surrounding area.

Even after they took power the Mamluks were “recruited” in the same way, from the same places. They were mostly a meritocracy – at the end of their education the best & brightest became Emirs and other members of the elite (not just leading the army but leading the country). The position of Sultan was also filled from the Mamluk ranks, and the experts said it was generally not hereditary although sometimes sons did succeed fathers. There was also a lot of assassination as a means of succession – which apparently was also the way in their original cultures, if you killed the King you were fit to be the King. I thought it was fascinating that for so long the Egyptians & surrounding areas were ruled by outsiders.

The “Sons of Mamluks” were generally born to Egyptian mothers, and the experts said they didn’t often enter the army. Instead they were privileged & pampered, and well educated – they tended to serve the country as the civilian bureaucracy. And these men are why the Mamluk era is so well documented by contemporaries – they wrote biographies & histories of their nation.

During the Mamluk era the borders of their empire were fairly static, they had no expansionist goals. They worked to oust the Christians from Syria, and even fought off the Mongols. Perhaps a bit of luck involved in the timing of that latter, as the leader of the Mongol army threatening them was actually back in Mongolia at the time to elect the new Great Khan. But another important factor was that for the first time the Mongols were facing an enemy who fought using their own tactics. Their rule didn’t crumble or collapse towards then end, instead they were conquered in one fell swoop by the Ottoman Empire who took advantage of the distraction of part of the Mamluk army by the Portuguese presence in the Red Sea.

The Mamluk era was generally peaceful & stable, and the experts said that the primary legacies of the Mamluks are in literature (including new poetic forms) and architecture. A lot of the classic buildings of Old Cairo were built by the Mamluk Sultans or their Emirs, and they were responsible for a lot of the infrastructure as well.